I grew up in Oklahoma City, and was 16 years old when the federal building there was bombed. At the critical moment, I happened to be in a second-story classroom, daydreaming out a window that faced downtown, and saw the explosion.
The tragedy was instantly a defining experience for everyone in the community, both a turning point in anguish and rage at the crime, and the consummate example of community spirit and goodwill, of people coming together to help one another. Longtime residents of OKC still talk about it at length and in depth. Central in the storytelling are all the ways people poured out compassion, generosity and hard work in the recovery. It was a time when folks let the best in themselves lead.
My city became the focus of national conversation and compassion – I remember hearing Bill Clinton on the news talking about Oklahoma City and being amazed that the president was discussing the place where I lived. I’d never felt like I lived someplace important before that moment. A couple days after the explosion Clinton spoke at a memorial service in town, with Billy Graham and many other leaders – I stood in line with my family for a couple hours, but couldn’t get into the venue. We were literally 30,000 people too far back in line.
168 people died in the Oklahoma City bombing, and the travesty was a shock that none of my family or friends even had a frame of reference for comprehending. I heard older people talk about Pearl Harbor as a comparable turning-point event in their consciousness about the world.
Over and over, as a constant refrain, I remember people saying some version of, ‘How could this happen here?’ It was a great blow to a community that wanted to believe it was the home of family values, goodwill and good times. And the narrative we developed to reassure ourselves in the aftermath was that in this community, an act of evil was met by the overwhelming power of good, in the grace and honor of regular people. The celebration of our collective social virtue was an important part of our coping with the experience.
On July 3, 2016, there was a terrorist attack in Baghdad that killed over 200 people – as of this writing, they don’t even have a definitive body count. This attack, more deadly than the one that helped define my youth, comes after 13 years of military invasion and occupation, civil war, crippling government ineptitude, and layer upon layer of new invasions and displacements.
There are terrorist attacks in Iraq all the time. Tens (hundreds?) of thousands have died by this viciousness there, and this event, which should be the worst thing that any of the people affected ever experience, is more of a horrendous update to a god-awful saga than it is an earth-shattering interruption of normal life. Nobody is asking, ‘How could this happen here?’ in Baghdad.
ISIS has committed their worst attack in a chronically traumatized society.
I haven’t seen my Facebook friends changing their profile pictures to Iraqi flags in solidarity with the victims in Baghdad. #PrayForBaghdad doesn’t appear to be trending on Twitter. This bombing, like just about every mass killing in the Middle East, or mass killing of brown people, or Muslims, is not being talked about as if it is as important as the Oklahoma City bombing, or the Paris or Orlando shootings. But it is.
The people who died there are as important as the people who die anywhere, everywhere.
The brutality of the Oklahoma City bomber was indeed bested by community and economic strength, and a stable social order, as well as the attention and support of the most powerful leaders in the world. Not that any of us in Oklahoma City wanted to think we were ‘lucky’, for getting to have our worst experience in the best circumstances. It is sickening to even think about who has it better, or worse, in a ranking of terrorist devastation.
Yet it’s a fact that our collective trauma was isolated and the trauma of Iraqis (and others) has become common. Despite my proximity to the Oklahoma City bombing, I have not gone about my life in the years since expecting that I will die by a terrorist attack at any moment. I have not come to expect explosions at the stores I patronize.
In the place where the federal building stood, my home city has created a breath-takingly beautiful memorial, a peaceful and quite gathering place for prayer and remembrance – it is actually a tourist destination, in a most beautiful and meaningful way.
I don’t know what people in Baghdad think about their own mortality and life prospects. I don’t know how people who live in Iraq, under the threats they face, contemplate the future and assess the resilience of their families and larger networks. I imagine that many or most believe in the beauty and endurance of Iraq in a way that’s similar to how Oklahomans believe in Oklahoma.
One thing I do know for sure is that the lives of Iraqis are as important as mine, and their children as precious as my sons and daughter.